Updated: Jul 9, 2020

By Kay Lee, Zero Waste Singapore

When Lizzy and Sophie messaged asking to do a chat about recycling for their Lockdown Lessons, I was thrilled! As a former expat kid, I resonate strongly with the message behind Eco Expats— just two people wanting to make a difference in their adopted home, and trying to learn the ropes and figure out the best practices as they go. As someone who has now returned to Singapore and is working in the environmental field with ZWSG, it was a privilege to be able to chat with the Eco Expats and my hope is that by sharing this information and making it more accessible to you, it’ll clarify some misconceptions about Singapore’s waste management and recycling systems, and leave you with the takeaway of why reduction is still key!

What happens to our waste?

Singapore operates on an incineration system. This means all rubbish is burned and sent to our landfill at Pulau Semakau, which was built in 1999. An island off the south of the mainland, it was built to last us till 2045.

However, with the amount of trash we’re throwing out, we will run out of space by 2035— in 15 years! Imagine the effort, resources and billions of tax dollars it will take to build another landfill. The island it is actually home to some incredible biodiversity, and we’re using that space to hold our trash!

How does recycling in Singapore work? What can be recycled?

It's likely you’ve seen blue bins in Singapore, especially if you live in HDB areas or certain neighbourhoods. The blue bins are co-mingled recycling bins, which means unlike most places, the recycling is not sorted at source. The recycling is collected by blue trucks, and sent to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for sorting. They are sorted into different categories, baled, and sent to recycling plants to be processed into new materials.

The categories of recyclables are: Plastic (in all categories except for 3, 6 and 7), glass, metal and paper.

Rule of thumb: most things in these categories can be recycled, with certain exceptions. Items that are of mixed material composition or made of different materials that are not easy for us to physically separate should not be recycled. Ensure any recyclables that once held liquid or food in it has been properly washed. This means that even plastic fruit boxes from supermarkets, wine bottles, and certain shampoo bottles can be recycled, as long as they are cleaned out and the materials are separated.

Often, we engage in “wishful recycling”— recycling items that we wish could be recycled, but in doing so actually create more of a hindrance to the recycling process. Do not recycle items such as food and liquid waste, items contaminated by food/liquid waste, items made of 2 or more materials (unless separated), takeaway drink cups and lids, mattresses, porcelain, tissue paper, single-use cutlery and diapers. As items should be single material, this means that certain food and drink packaging cannot be recycled as they are made of a combination of plastic and aluminium. The flimsier looking the plastic, the less likelihood there is of it being recycled. Contamination is one of the main reasons why the recycling rate is so low, so ensuring that food or liquid waste is properly cleaned out is an important step.

For a comprehensive list of what can and cannot be recycled, scroll to the bottom of this article! You can also check out this cute video which gives a list of what can and cannot be recycled here.

Key takeaway: As much as possible, recycle your single material, clean and dry items. If there is no number on the plastic item and it looks study, clean and of single material, it can also be put in the blue bin.

Why Reduction is still Key

Simply put, recycling is a mechanism to close the loop and make the circular economy a closer reality. Its mean to turn already existing stuff into new stuff— but it's not always successful. Our recycled items still has to be sold to buyers, and market fluctuations play a big part in the recycling business. As the demand for certain items such as plastic has decreased over the years, lots of our recycling don’t actually get a second life.

In the past, our recycling went to overseas recycling plants, for instance located in China, as creation of recycling plants in land-scarce Singapore remains a challenge. Over the past few years, many countries have started to close their recycling plants to other countries. ZWSG hopes Singapore will eventually own our own recycling processes (which can also be housed in neighbouring countries to make it cost-effective) so we can ensure recyclables are effectively recycled into other products.

In fact, lots of what we recycle goes around the world and may end up in landfills, illegal recycling plants, and even in the ocean. These pollute our environment, our bodies and bring up a whole separate set of issues. For many of you that do beach clean ups, you’ll know that even Singapore isn’t immune to being swamped with plastics. When we go out for a swim, we could be literally swimming in trash!

That’s why reduction is still a significant part of our sustainability journey, and why it’s key. While recycling is an important step, we should also reuse and repurpose instead of buying new things, and make recycling a Case C and a last resort.

Key takeaway: Reduction is always key. What can be recycled, does not mean it WILL be recycled.

At ZWSG, we believe sustainability and being zero waste is a journey, and we welcome all questions and concerns that you may have. Connect with us on social media to ask us anything, and to get a better understanding of our campaigns, programmes, and what we stand for, check out our website!



About Zero Waste SG: ZWSG is an environmentally-focused charity that works on accelerating the shift to a circular economy in Singapore. It educates, empowers and engages the community on waste-centric issues. Its flagship movement is BYO SG, which is a nationwide movement that brings together businesses and consumers to work together in reducing single-use disposables. Connect with us on our social media pages: Instagram , Facebook and Linkedin, and help us continue making information about sustainability accessible!

About Kay: Kay has been with ZWSG since 2019, and has since conducted talks, workshops, events and campaigns, all with the aim of encouraging Singapore to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle and making sustainability accessible. She first recognised the interconnectedness of systems and people while in school and realises that all of us have a part to play, and hopes her actions can contribute to the conversation. You can email her at


THE LIST - What CAN and CAN NOT be recycled?

By the National Environment Agency.

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